The Corona filling station is situated in a prime position just a few miles outside the metropolis, at the point where the main arterial highway splits into two, one road going east along the Thames estuary and the other heading to the Kentish ports of Dover and Folkestone.
It is a landmark in its own peculiar way, an ugly building clearly visible from the highway, CORONA FUEL AND FILLING STATION OPEN 24/7 STOP AND SHOP the flashing neon sign seeks to persuade the passing traffic that it is vital to head off the highway for fuel and supplies.
The Corona is always busy. While still night lorry drivers stop on their way to and from the Dover ferry then as the pale pink streaks of dawn lighten the sky a steady trickle of commuters from dull satellite towns, splattered like string of dusty pearls along the road, stop on their way to high rise offices and dreary industrial estates, picking up sandwiches or coffee. In the evening they will return like a flock of migrating birds.
In the middle of the day there are coaches spewing out passengers excited at the beginning of their trip or tired, grumpy and exhausted at the end.
At weekends and holidays there are families and day trippers on their way in to the big city or outwards towards the Kent countryside. In summer caravans slowly weave their way down the highway with a long tail of impatient cars stretching behind like a snake.
Customers pay no attention to the two workers, Abdul and Vlad.
This unlikely pair work alternate twelve hour shifts doing all the menial jobs. Bert, the manager, does not trust them on the tills or serving customers but they are a vital component to the smooth running of the Corona, willing to work long hours for little pay.
Bert needed cheap labour so did not ask for identification papers. The arrangement suits everyone. He has help 24/7, pays cash no questions. He exploits them, but if workers do not like the arrangement, there is always a steady supply of replacements just waiting to step into their place.
They had both come to England through Dover hoping for a better life.
Abdul is dark skinned, slim and deferential; a Muslim, he had left Pakistan when a flood destroyed his village killing most of his family. By selling items rescued from the mud, he got a ride on a lorry to Europe and the French port of Calais. He was smuggled into England under a lorry and the Corona café was the first place the lorry stopped for fuel. No friends, family and an aching loss in his heart, he is a stranger in a strange land.
Vlad works the night shift, a pale, pasty complexion, pock marked face and a surly demeanour. An eastern European,he grew up in poverty with an alcoholic violent, father. At 15 Vlad escaped with another lad from the village keen to see the world. They hitchhiked in stages across Europe. His companion was arrested in Germany following a fight so Vlad continued alone until he too ended up at the Corona. Vlad was resentful, a chip on his shoulder as large as a tree, life was unfair and he felt imprisoned by his upbringing and his circumstances.
Abdul and Vlad share a tiny, dingy, airless flat near the Corona. There is only one bed, but while one sleeps the other is at work. Abdul places his bedroll over the top of Vlads sheets and folds it neatly away when he wakes. Vlad leaves socks, dirty trainers and beer cans strewn around the floor. Despite their differences the arrangement suits them. They live like one person, in a symbiotic existence, but never really engaging, passing ships in the night.
In every city, in every country there are people like Abdul and Vlad, existing in limbo like driftwood washed up on a distant beach after a storm. They serve society but are not part of it, lost souls waiting for someone to recognise they are precious and value them for who they are and to lead them to a safe harbour and the Promised Land. Who will go to them? God calls on us as Christians not to forget those who are fatherless and strangers in our Land. Who will go? Open our eyes to see those no one else sees!
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